How removing filters can make your writing come alive

We’ve probably all had the experience of flying on a cloudy day. At a certain point, the plane ascends above the clouds and we discover there was a perfectly sunny day going on above the gloom.

When I discovered the effect filtering was having on my writing, it was like that moment in the airplane when the sun fills the cabin. The filters I had been using were like those puffy clouds: they were preventing the reader from seeing what I was trying to describe. They weren’t allowing the reader to fully engage with the story.

What’s a filter? A writing instructor once told me:  Filtering is the needless processing of an image through an observing consciousness. Not so clear? A better way to explain filtering is by demonstrating it:

Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.

By removing the filter “she noticed,” the sentence becomes stronger, more active:

She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.

Filtering in fiction is particularly common because it’s a very natural way to write. As we envision a story, we see the character looking before we are ready to describe what that character is looking at.

One way to notice when you’re using filters is to watch for those places you use phrases such as she noticed / she saw / she remembered. Try going right into the description rather than filtering it through the character.

Here are two scenes, the first with filtering (underlined), and the second filter-free.

Version one

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. She looked out the window and there, across the street, she saw the ivory BMW parked in front of the fire hydrant once more. It seemed to her, though, that something was wrong with the car. She noticed that it was listing slightly toward the back and side, and then saw that the back rim was resting almost on the asphalt.

Version two (filter-free)

Mrs. Blair made her way to the chair by the window and sank gratefully into it. Across the street the ivory BMW was parked in front of the fire plug again. Something was wrong with the car, though. It was listing toward the back and side, the back rim resting almost on the asphalt.

Notice how nothing is lost by losing the “filtering” and how much better it reads, how much clearer and less diluted the observations are.

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